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Fire that evacuated NM nuclear repository is out

February 6, 2014

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — A truck fire that forced workers to evacuate the southeastern New Mexico site where the federal government seals away its low-grade nuclear waste, including plutonium-contaminated clothing and tools, was no longer burning by late Wednesday.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s mine rescue team went into the underground site near Carlsbad and confirmed that the fire in a truck hauling salt was out, a news release and a spokeswoman answering an emergency line said late Wednesday. The team also reported that the air was clear and safe to breathe.

Joint Information Center member Susan Scott says a second mine rescue team was heading down to survey the extent of the damage. She said there was no information on what caused the blaze or when the site would reopen.

All employees were evacuated from the underground site after the fire broke out about 11 a.m. Wednesday, and none of the radioactive waste was affected, plant officials said. Six people were treated for smoke inhalation and released a short while later.

At an afternoon news conference, officials said the fire occurred on a truck in the facility’s north mine, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. Nuclear waste is stored in the south mine, officials said.

Fire suppression systems and rescue teams were immediately activated, and all waste handling operations were suspended, officials said.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., issued a statement characterizing the event as a “minor fire.”

“It is critically important to note that at no point did the fire threaten the waste disposed of at the WIPP, nor was the community or public ever at risk,” he said.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation’s first and only deep geological nuclear repository. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and defense projects, and buries it in rooms cut from underground salt beds.

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is another underground site built as a potential repository for used nuclear fuel, but it is not operational, said Rod McCullum, the director of used-fuels programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The New Mexico facility receives 17 to 19 shipments each week from sites around the country, including Los Alamos and installations in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina.

The repository is licensed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency every five years, McCullum said.

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